University School of Nashville October 19–21
WORDS Cat Acree
“She lets her imagination run wild with possibilities, dictated only by the powers of the piece itself.”
If you’d witnessed Bennet LeMaster making marks on a page only a few years ago, you could have known exactly what she was feeling just by her manner. Creating had so much emotion behind it that the act was visceral, even a little violent. But with her latest work, which will be on display in University School of Nashville’s Artclectic art show, that pure emotion has been harnessed.
“I don’t need to create it with that feeling now,” LeMaster says. “I think it comes now in my movement, in my brush, in my pencil. As I learn better how to interact with the paper or the canvas or whatever it is, I think I naturally allow that feeling to come across … without having to be angry while I make it.”
Of course, it’s not all anger. LeMaster, a Nashville native, a singer-songwriter, and a 2013 winner of the Scholastic Art Competition, channels the kind of free-flowing emotion that someone might prefer to keep private—especially those complicated feelings that haven’t sorted themselves out (and maybe won’t). “It feels like a conversation with myself,” she says. “The funny thing is, I always wished I was one of those girls that had a diary. I write a lot, but I never like to write about myself. I don’t know, it feels cheesy, like I’m narrating a book.”
While she might not practice the art of daily journaling, she has kept a sketchbook every year of her life since she was nine. And they are a lot like a diary, filled with ticket stubs and taped-in remnants from catalogs and magazines, interspersed with squiggles and doodles and splotches. Similarly, her finished works are mixed- media streams of consciousness. And while paint may be the primary medium, there’s nothing LeMaster won’t use: newspaper clippings, block ink, nail polish, sprinkles and spices, even water-flavoring concentrate. Whatever she can get her hands on. “Art isn’t just paint and paper,” she says simply. “Art is in your kitchen. When I’ve run out of money for canvases, a pizza box cut a certain way is a canvas!”
In fact, her only limitations are the physical parameters of the page and whatever previous mark was made— otherwise, it’s a creative free-for-all. “Part of what I enjoy about art is the feeling of making it,” she says. “As long as I enjoy the feeling of doing something to paper, I’m always going to have material to make. And if you play with something long enough, it kind of decides for you.”
She emphasizes how important it is to keep from treating materials and canvas as if they’re “holy.” By keeping her process open, by allowing herself to “build, create, destroy, create,” she imbues her work with a “wandering element,” the sense of roiling, ever-changing emotion. She lets her imagination run wild with possibilities, dictated only by the powers of the piece itself. She compares it to seeing figures in clouds, or a paint chipping resembling a cat. Even when a work includes some human representation, it is done in a single wobbly line, mimicking a younger LeMaster’s favorite way of killing time, when she would blindly draw someone’s face.
All this being said, and for all her moments of abstract expressionism and that wandering element, much of LeMaster’s work has a strong conceptual undercurrent, especially when she’s reacting to a setting, someplace she’s traveled to and the art she witnessed there.
One example is a piece that features Elvis’s face, which was sparked by LeMaster’s family connection to Memphis. She was driven to address the “difficult social situation” of the city, in particular the racial divide, while also acknowledging the city’s “great music and also great barbecue and also some awesome people.” And so a happy, seemingly friendly Elvis contrasts sharply with some of the darker elements on the page, such as scattered matches, one of which is painted with a little golden flame to appear lit. “You do feel a tension between the happy parts … and the really darker parts of the painting,” she says, “and that’s how I wanted you to feel. I think that’s how I feel about that city.”
This is something the viewer often encounters in LeMaster’s work: how the way you feel about something might be more complicated than can be put into words; how big-picture concerns end up very personal; and how emotions sometimes don’t always match up with reality.
“It all comes from the same place, essentially,” LeMaster says. “I really don’t make anything that I don’t feel is about my life, too.” She compares it to songwriting and the moment when she realized it’s not about writing songs that sound like what you hear—it’s about writing what sounds like you. “Even if it’s not about me, if it’s something that I value, it’ll come out.”
Bennet LeMaster is exhibiting her work at Artclectic October 19–21 at University School of Nashville. For more information, visit Artclectic.org. See more of LeMaster’s work at www.bennetlemaster.com.